My Life in Middlemarch – Looking back on reading a classic

Back in August 2015, Bookin’ with Sunny published Ann Ronald’s review of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. I read Mead’s book sometime after that (after I had finally finished George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which was a Clayton Community Library Book Club pick).

These comments are really meant for those readers who, like me, had put off reading Eliot and whose familiarity with her novels had been limited to BBC/PBS Masterpiece Theatre and their many efforts to bring Eliot’s work to life. At my age, I’m not sure how many re-reads I can expect to give Middlemarch and I was eager to learn what Rebecca Mead would share, not only about the novel, but the place and time in which it was written.

Mead brings all her years as a writer, a critic and most importantly, a reader, to My Life in Middlemarch. Because she has been re-reading Middlemarch since she was seventeen, her comments about what each reading meant to her as she matured rang bells for me. In our long-running book club, we periodically talk about how it is that we often read the same book so differently. Eliot may have scorned those readers who look for or see themselves in the novels they read, but as Mead remarks: “Even so, all readers make books over in their own image, and according to their own experience. My Middlemarch is not the same as anyone else’s Middlemarch; it is not even the same as my Middlemarch of twenty-five years ago.” My review of Mead’s book is not the same as Ann Ronald’s. For me, Mead’s My Life, with the groundwork admittedly arising from George Eliot’s classic, presents the reader an opportunity to think about how and why we read fiction, any fiction.

Mead found that the subjects of courtship, marriage, youthful aspirations, failing relationships, bad government, medical quackery, and looming technology were all present in Eliot’s novel. She also found that those subjects were just as relevant to her in the twenty-first century as they were to Eliot in the nineteenth, but her understanding and appreciation of those subjects were dependent on the life she was living or had recently experienced at the time of each reading.

Mead’s book goes a long way, by retracing and bravely sharing her own English roots and life experiences, in uncovering not only Eliot’s path to writing Middlemarch, but her own steps to reading it. Her book should give all readers, and especially those who belong to book clubs, great heart in understanding why we seem to find reading some books easier than others. It is not only what the author brings to her story, or the style of her writing (often a mirror of the period in which it was written), but equally important, what we as readers bring to the story. My Life in Middlemarch made me appreciate the almost collaborative relationship between author and reader. – Sunny Solomon

Also available by Rebecca Mead: One Perfect Day, The Selling of the American Wedding; How the Vote Was Won, Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914; Swedes in Michigan; The Road to Middlemarch, My Life with George Eliot.

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